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What to Expect When You are Expecting Obama

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Preparations for Barack Obama’s impending visit are in full swing, though shrouded in secrecy

On 6 November, a Boeing 747 flown by Captain Scot Turner and his crew of 26 will touch down at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. The call sign of the aircraft, Air Force One, will command instant recognition among those familiar with Hollywood fare. It would be carrying a passenger named Barack Obama, the most powerful person on the planet, a description that US President No 44 takes for granted far easier than his successors in the decades ahead might: which is why this visit to India matters.

The plane Turner will be flying is no ordinary Jumbo Jet for other reasons too, at least for those who get access to it (count most of us out). The three decks of the 747 have been modified to suit presidential purposes. There’s a cargo area below, the mid-level passenger area has Obama’s own bedroom, bathroom, gym and office, and the ‘attic’ above houses a set of state-of-the-art electronics that can do anything from jamming hostile missiles and blocking cyber threats to operating an entire command chain that can keep working no matter what happens on terra firma to America and the world (just in case). In fact, the plane is so secure that on 9/11, with New York and the Pentagon under attack, then President George W Bush was considered safest airborne aboard Air Force One. By all accounts, its security has only been upgraded since.

The entire crew has been handpicked. Turner himself took charge of flying the aircraft the very day Obama was sworn in. At their very first meeting, Obama reportedly exclaimed, “You know, I’ve got to say, you’re out of central casting. You’re exactly what I want the pilot of Air Force One to look like. You look like you know how to fly. You look like Sam Shepard in The Right Stuff.” The 26 on board are all military personnel, and include members of Obama’s security detail. 

Following not too far behind Turner’s Boeing 747 will be an identical plane, a backup that accompanies the President wherever he goes. A few days earlier, a C-17 plane would have flown in, carrying three Marine One choppers and four Presidential limousines (to accompany his motorcade of some 45 bulletproof limousines and vans).

FIRST TERM FRIENDSHIP

Expect to experience déjà vu as soon as Obama and his wife Michelle step off the plane. You’d have seen it all in the movies before: dignitaries and officials will stand in line in some particular order based on the rank of the guest to be received. A Head of State must be received by a Head of State. In Maharashtra’s case, the Governor stands first, the CM stands next.

“It is a matter of minutes, and you have to pay attention to all details like flower bouquets and retaining the order of the line. Vehicles must be in place [the convoy includes an ambulance with doctors]. It is all pre-decided, even who will sit in which car,” says retired IAS officer Govind Swarup, who has held charge as chief of protocol on several occasions in Maharashtra. 

 But Indians, especially politicians, are not very fond of protocol. A favourite way to break it is by standing in front of each other for a photo. “Once a sheriff broke protocol and sat with a European dignitary’s wife in the lounge area. The dignitary got offended and complained,” says the officer. 

In Delhi, Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar has been tutoring Members of Parliament to ensure that they behave themselves—or at the very least not tumble over one another, as they did to shake Bill Clinton’s hand when he came visiting.

Thankfully, Delhi has longer to prepare. Mumbai is first on the itinerary. Here, it is not clear whether Obama and his team will take the Marine One helicopter directly from the airport to INS Shikra, the Indian Navy’s helicopter base in South Mumbai, or travel by road. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which has a Rs 25 lakh budget for sprucing up South Mumbai, is taking no chances. Among other things, potholes are being filled along roads from the airport to South Mumbai, and to other venues. 

Assuredly, potholes are the least of the traumas Obama’s limo, a Cadillac nicknamed the Beast, is equipped for. What it has is 8-inch thick armour-plated doors and 5-inch thick glass windows that can withstand any bullet, apart from its own oxygen supply, fire-fighting equipment, night-vision cameras, tear gas cannons, shotguns and supplies of Obama’s own blood. Its fuel efficiency, as Indian readers may like to know, is less than 3 km to the litre—and that’s on American roads. 

Not that the US is unaware of local conditions. As far back as September, its security assessment teams had begun visiting Mumbai, and have since mapped out all roads, buildings and even sewerage lines—something even the BMC has no usable map of—along the route. They also have dossiers on the city’s security apparatus, including profiles of senior police officers, and will likely use jammers all along the way that Indian intelligence won’t be able to crack.

Also, expect an estimated 1,700 elite secret service personnel of the US to be around, each armed with a Sauer P229 handgun (with specially chambered .357 calibre rounds that can pierce thick armour) and a Remington 870, a shotgun which at close range can blast a person’s head off. 

Obama, after all, would be visiting the heritage wing of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, the site of the 26 November 2008 terror attack by Pakistani gunmen. This entire wing of 604 rooms has been booked by US authorities for the tour. So too all restaurants and banquet halls. No tourists will be allowed at the nearby Gateway of India, and the bay that this monument overlooks will be kept free of vessels of any kind. US Navy warships will need to station themselves just beyond the 12 km limit of Indian territorial waters. 

THE BUSINESS OF BUSINESS

Obama’s visit comes in the wake of an expected setback for his Democratic party in America’s early November elections. This places a premium on business deals that assure jobs for recession-hit US citizens. If Obama is to help double US exports in the next five years, as he wants, Indo-US trade will need a fillip; bilateral trade topped $32 billion in the first eight months of 2010, a figure that could go higher.

On 6 November, the US President is to address a conference sponsored by the US-India Business Council, which played a key role in the Indo-US Nuclear Deal. Led by such high-profile CEOs as GE’s Jeffrey Immelt (also part of Obama’s external economic board), Boeing’s Jim McNerney (who also heads America’s new export council) and Honeywell’s David Cote (who is on Obama’s deficit cutting commission), the US business delegation accompanying Obama will be looking forward to bagging some big orders.

Companies such as GE Hitachi and Westinghouse will be keen on making the most of India’s newly opened nuclear power sector, though so far it is other kinds of power-generation deals that have generated a buzz. GE, for example, has already got India’s single largest order for gas and steam turbines from Reliance Power Ltd, worth $750 million, even as US-based Bucyrus eyes a big mining equipment order from it.  

THE BUSINESS OF GEO-POLITICS

The flight to Delhi and Obama’s arrival at the ITC Maurya hotel (see ‘Memories of another Visit’) will follow much the same pattern as his stay in Mumbai, the dramatic difference being the nature of discussions to come, and of course the multiplicity of diplomats who’ll lay paternity claims to any success. If Mumbai is about business, Delhi is about geo-politics. 

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Obama sit face to face, what is it that they will talk about? “Very little is extempore,” says a senior external affairs hand privy to such proceedings. “The truth is that a lot of the work is done beforehand. Take this visit. Our foreign secretary visited Washington DC a month ago, and their senior officials Robert Blake and William Burns came by last week.” Robert Blake is America’s assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, while William Burns is undersecretary of state for political affairs.

The search for common interests has been thorough, each party holding out until it finds its own comfort zone. “The only thing that seems to be a breakthrough is on taking Indian firms such as Isro and Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) off the so-called ‘entities list’, so that they can access technology more smoothly,” says the external affairs official, “That itself is significant, and has not happened since we exploded the nuclear device. Frankly, the other things, including defence deals, are still stuck.”

It is here that the Prime Minister’s Office may step in. In a highly unusual move, Obama has sent a letter to the PM. While its contents are unknown, it is believed that he has urged Manmohan Singh to be receptive to US concerns over India’s Nuclear Liability Bill, and also allow the inspection of US-supplied defence equipment that could ease American sales of such things as fighter jets to Indian armed forces. 

For all the mutual bonhomie, India and America have divergent worldviews, and that will make discussions difficult. The differences range from Kashmir to the Nuclear Deal, with plenty inbetween. 

In the months past, there have been indications in the US press of what sort of grand arrangement it wants. India, it has been hinted, could be ‘rewarded’ with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council in lieu of a ‘solution’ to Kashmir. Such posturing is not taken seriously by New Delhi, but the message gets across. It is no coincidence that Indian interlocutors are in Kashmir trying to talk to separatists.

In public, the K word will not be mentioned. The Obama Administration has learnt its lesson after once trying to place Kashmir on the agenda of US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke. India rebuffed the move so strongly that Holbrooke hasn’t even whispered the K word openly since.

On India’s Nuclear Liability Act, which has put off the US with its tough conditions imposed on foreign suppliers of equipment, New Delhi has signalled a slight softening by agreeing to sign the Convention on Supplementary Compensation on nuclear damage, the last of its Nuclear Deal commitments. With this move, India hopes to assure the US that case-by-case exceptions may be worked out with US suppliers.

On Indian defence purchases, expect some poker faces around. Negotiations are underway for ten Boeing military transport craft and ten C-17s, even as the 126-fighter jet deal hovers uncertainly (the contract is yet to be given). The sticky part, however, is the broader defence cooperation that the US would like with India. Union Defence Minister AK Antony has stated in no uncertain terms that India will not sign two agreements put forth by the US: Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation. Rid of technobabble, these require the two countries’ armed forces to work a bit too closely for India’s comfort.

On its part, India is likely to express discomfort over the latest round of arms aid to Pakistan ($2 billion, that is). At the end, both sides will probably agree to disagree on these issues. Electorates are watching.

LEISURE TIME

Feel-good atmospherics are part of all Presidential trips (who can forget Clinton being addressed as ‘quintalji’ by besotted Rajasthani village women?), but this time, mystery hovers over what Obama has in mind. 

No one, for example, is clear if Amritsar was ever part of Obama’s programme, though a US security team did turn up there in September for interactions with district officials. The controversy over the headgear he wears on a visit to the Golden Temple, however, has already come as a let-down to admirers who make much of his multi-culturalism. It seems odd that the ‘leader of the free world’ won’t risk being seen wearing a handkerchief on his head at a shrine that has nothing to do with Islam. This seems odder still in a truly multi-cultural country where even the most bigoted of non-Muslim politicians think nothing of walking into a mosque with a headcap. It’s the done thing, after all, and no eyebrows are ever raised.

An Obama visit to Ranthambore seems somewhat more likely. The tiger reserve there is readying a helipad for a possible Obama drop-by, even as local security is tightened and sundry photographers rush in for the photo-op of a lifetime: the Obamas sighting a tiger. It would call for a husband-wife knuckle bump.

Reports by Ninad D. Sheth in Delhi, and Haima Deshpande and Shubhangi Swarup in Mumbai